In its first two weeks of release as a free download, Simon Curtis’ debut album 8bit Heart garnered 150,000 downloads, was a trending topic on Twitter, and landed the artist his first gig opening for AJ McLean at the Roxy in May. Not bad for an album that was written and recorded over a scant 13 days. The production on this so-pop-it-practically-crackles-and-snaps piece of work is incredible, especially considering it was created at the hands of only Curtis and his collaborator Jeff (Jadion) Wells in a basement in West Virginia. Now back in LA, Curtis has teamed up with the Roxy to give away tickets to his debut performance, but listeners be warned: like a musical drug dealer, Simon Curtis may be offering the first tastes of his exceptional product for free, but don’t be surprised when you get hooked.
Simon Curtis took time out from waging a one-man war on the world of pop to talk to LA Music Blog about his intentions behind 8bit Heart, the recording process, and what old-school gaming systems have to do with it all.
Photo by: Tyler Shields
Was 8bit Heart something you were hoping would take off or was it a pet project?
It definitely wasn’t a pet project. I did it with a mission in mind. One of my best friends, Andrea Lewis—who was on DeGrassi with Aubrey, who’s now known as Drake—and I have talked for a couple years about the effect that free music can have. Seeing what he did with his third mix tape that wound up blowing him up and making him the superstar he is today, it really inspired me to do this album for free.
I actually didn’t get to spend much time on it. I wrote it and recorded it in 13 days, from start to finish, from scratch, every song. It was definitely a very intense, grueling pace, but I had a mission in mind—I wanted to make an album, and I knew that I wanted to give it away. Once I got the title, I had the idea to give it away, and I had 8,000 followers on Twitter. It was all those ideas at once, how to capitalize upon social media as best I could and use it to my advantage in spreading the word out and galvanizing a fan base.
And how many downloads have you had since it released?
We don’t actually know the official number of downloads because one of the things about this album is that I encourage it to be spread. With that said, it’s now on hundreds and hundreds of torrent sites and rapid shares. There are blogs who are uploading it themselves and posting it. I encourage that, because I want it to be viral. It’s more important for me to have the fan base than it is to have the exact number. From estimations of what the downloads have been off of the official site, plus what we’ve been able to gauge from the torrents and the share sites, it’s well over 150,000 downloads at this point.
The music industry is in a very curious place right now in that people are releasing EPs, and labels are trying to push new artists with just a single and see if the artist hits based on that. Then the release of an album is contingent upon one single’s success. That, to me, is unacceptable. I don’t think you can be an artist by only having one single available. It’s not fair to any fan base that might develop. You might not ever have an album come out. It was the only option for me because I was on a mission to prove what I can do and what I want to do and the kind of artist that I’m going to be. I couldn’t do that any other way than besides releasing an entire cohesive album, so there was no other option for me.
What were some of your inspirations while writing this album?
I started working on it thinking that it’s supposed to be a few songs, just seeing kind of what direction I wanted to go in next, testing the water. I found this great plethora online of these eight-bit music samples, and I got so inspired by what I was hearing. These were old Commodore 64 and Atari tracks. I could hear pop tracks being built with these samples, and literally that day, I got the concept for the album. I picked out all of the samples that I wanted to use in the record, and it came from there.
Before that, I really was trying to push myself and take everything in my life that really inspires me. I was able to tie that in seamlessly with the eight-bit video game samples and other things like science fiction and ‘80s fantasy movies like The Neverending Story and The Dark Crystal, even Mozart. I did opera when I was little, and The Magic Flute is one of my favorite operas that I ever was able to perform in. We used a really famous aria sample that we reengineered in my song “Beat Drop.”
I referenced a lot of other artists who’ve inspired me. I referenced a whole lot of pop culture. I like to have my references there and very transparent. I also started to become very inspired by conspiracy theories and the occult and the Illuminati, and that’s very evident on the album as well. There’s a lot of symbolism in the album that a lot of people haven’t picked up on yet—you know, simple little things like the song “Diablo” being at track number six on the record. There’s a lot of deeper stuff other than just the surface references that I’m excited for people to start delving a little deeper into.
There’s quite a contrast between you pulling this album together in 13 days and artists such as the Beatles who could work on an album for many months, giving them ample time to achieve such great sounds and work out any kinks.
That was also a different era of music. I’m not working with a band. Working on this album, I had one musical collaborator and everything was done on a computer and a keyboard. I can only imagine what it’s like to be working with a band when it’s supposed to be a cohesive organic process of songwriting and creation. The Beatles were innovators as far as pop music is concerned, and they developed a lot of the techniques that are used still today in pop music. I wouldn’t necessarily throw them under the bus, but I get what you’re saying, and it most certainly shouldn’t take a year to create an album. I was fortunate enough to become really inspired. I had a very strong idea, and I have a very strong point of view when it comes to pop music. I think that was what really fueled me and enabled me to do an entire album in 13 days.
This album is something that I’ve been wanting to do for a long time, and it really is my first album. It was the right time, and it was what I needed to do. It was finally time to show the world what I can do. I’m just so honored and humbled that people are reacting so strongly to it. You know, I’m not one to shy away from my songwriting and the way that I write songs. I don’t like to whitewash anything. I’m not gonna sanitize anything if it comes into my head. I’m probably not going to filter it because I feel as though it’s come there for a reason, like the Kelly Clarkson reference in “Diablo,” which is more of a Max Martin shout out to me. There are some Britney references, and there are a few Lady Gaga references and shout outs on the album. Those are things that came and they kind of just seemed to go with it, and they were perfect. It’s what inspires me, and I just have to get it all out. [LAUGHS]
These references show an understanding of the market you’re working with in a way that the Lady Gagas and Kelly Clarksons of the world don’t.
Thank you. I most certainly appreciate that. I have to disagree with you on the Lady Gaga front, because I do feel like The Fame Monster is one of the strongest pop albums of the past decade. It was a short album, only an eight song album. That record wasn’t released when I was recording this in October, but one of the things that I didn’t shy away from was a changing of the formula of the typical pop song. There are several songs on there that are only two-and-a-half minutes long. That was very important to me—getting just enough time to let someone get hooked on a song without over-expounding upon it. I didn’t feel like every single song had to be three-and-a-half minutes long. I didn’t feel like every single song had to be verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, chorus. I wanted songs to be unique.
There was a lot of thought put into every aspect of it, even as far as the pacing of the album; every song is in the exact position that I planned for it to be, like “Diablo” being number six on the album. If you look at the lengths of each track, all the times end in a zero or a five, which nobody’s picked up on yet. If you bring up your iTunes and look at it, you’ll see that it’s perfectly rounded like that, because it ties into the theme of the robots and the science fiction. There’s a lot there, and I’m very proud of it. I’m very glad that I was able to fit something with so many different messages in such a concise package.
What else do you have planned for 2010?
Right now, I’m trying to push 8 Bit Heart as hard as possible. I’m trying to get as many interviews and really get the word out to as many people as possible to, like I said earlier, galvanize a fan base. The ball has really started rolling and things are snowballing at this point, which is exactly what I’d hoped for. It’s beyond what I’d hoped for right now. Everything’s just coming at me, and I’m really hoping that I can capitalize on this momentum and turn it into shows and hopefully, a record deal, and onward and upward from there.
Photo by: Tyler Shields
You said you only worked with one other musical collaborator on this album. Who was it?
My musical collaborator’s name is Jeff. I met him back when I was in Oklahoma. We’ve been working together for several years. We mesh together musically very well. All it takes for us is his computer and ProTools and ideas, and we can run with it. I’m very fortunate that I had him to collaborate on this album with me. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without him.
It’s definitely a symbiotic relationship. One of the proving points that I was trying to make with this record is that I am capable of doing this, putting together cohesive, brandable pop music that’s intelligent yet commercial, without an A&R team. One of the biggest things about this is that I am doing this on my own, trying to entice a fan base and a record label and all of that. It’s a big selling point that this was done without an A&R team, that this was done without 400 cooks in the kitchen. I hope that the quality speaks for itself.
The interest is buzzing now, and it makes me very happy because it’s coming from a very organic place. When it comes time for me to sign with a label, I am going to have a significant, greater amount of power in that I’m coming to the table with a fan base. I’m coming to the table with a product that has already defined the artist that I am and that I’m going to be. That’s also gonna help me retain creative control, which is very important to me because I’m full of ideas and I don’t want to relinquish them to a room full of suits. [LAUGHS]
What do you hope that the people who listen to this album will get from it?
One of the most important things for me in pop music, which has been my modus operandi for years, is that I want people to be able to think and dance at the same time. Pop music is my passion; it’s my life. I find that a good pop song is one of the only completely, totally universal uniting things that could ever come about. I was in Africa and I was up in the mountain jungles near Congo, and I was hearing Black Eyed Peas on the local radio station—on AM radio in darkest Africa. It just blew my mind that pop music can be so far-reaching.
Pop music that also has a message and can also be analyzed on a deeper level and that can also provoke thought—that’s what I want to do. I hope that’s what people see from this record, that it’s an example of that. I hope that that comes across. I think it is coming across, and people are gravitating towards it and getting excited about it because of that. I hope it shows people the potential and gets them excited for videos and performances and everything else that comes once the ball really gets rolling, and I have a machine behind me.
Another thing about the record is that even though it’s technically a mainstream pop record, it’s as indie as it gets. It was literally two people making this album on our own in a basement in West Virginia. It’s funny that some people won’t even look at it as indie music just because of the sound quality and because of what the music itself sounds like. I’ve encountered that. On the other hand, I’ve been very fortunate in that several of the bigger indie music blogs have really attached themselves to it, and people who do like independent music have found it. That does make me happy, because it really honestly is a truly independent record.
For more info on Simon Curtis, check out: